BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Britain's Guardian newspaper, legendary political cartoonist Steve Bell wields his ink. Bell regularly delights his readers by being brutal beyond the boundaries of taste that prevail in the American press. Recently he crossed the pond to attend a convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in Pittsburgh. He wrote in the Guardian that he was more impressed with the splendor of the gathering than the American toons' political punch. He says even an exhibit of cartoons that had been spiked as too hot to print were relatively weak tea. We called on Bell in Brighton for more on political cartooning here and in Britain.
STEVE BELL: Well the main difference is that over in your side, everybody's drawing locally-based stuff. All the papers in the States are more or less local papers. There aren't really any real national papers unless you count the New York Times or USA Today which is--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the New York Times, significantly, doesn't have its own cartoonists!
STEVE BELL:No! That, that is another great failing I would say. I think the difference over here is because it's the national press generally that's based in London, each paper tends to have a sort of political line.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how would you describe your style, artistically and editorially?
STEVE BELL:My style is probably certainly a l-- lot less wordy. I'm deliberately -- avoid the sort of labels in my work. The thing is I -- when you're in the context of a newspaper, a newspaper is actually a mass of words -there's no getting away from it. You have to assume that people actually read the words, so I cannot see the point of repeating by putting a-- pasting a sort of notice on somebody's chest what they represent. I think the symbolism should be implicit in the image. The other thing I think I can probably get away with certain physical rudeness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I would love an example of that.
STEVE BELL: [LAUGHS]! Well-- [LAUGHS]!!! It's more to do with-- I suppose drawing people's butts, as you would say. [LAUGHTER] I can get away with sort of body parts and things like that. Also a certain rudeness in the use of language.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now you noted that when you went to the exhibition of spiked cartoons you were surprised by their relative editorial mildness. What's your most recent cartoon that actually got you into trouble -- or have you never gotten into trouble?
STEVE BELL: Oh, no - I've gotten into trouble quite frequently. It's usually on grounds of either libel or good taste, decency. [LAUGHS] You want me to describe it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes, I do!
STEVE BELL:[LAUGHS]!! Well the most recent one was --how can I describe it? - it was -- George W. Bush in the bathroom - you say, but we say--"crapper" -- and his place is covered in -well, what could I say but say "crap" --terrible mess - and this is a symbolic mess, and he's reaching for the toilet paper which is in the shape of the United Nations flag. Now that one I had to reduce the number of shall we say "turds" on the wall. [LAUGHTER] That's my most recent example of censorship. So-- I mean I took 3 of them out and that was fine. They printed it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You note that the "political cartoons in newspapers actually float in a wave of words." Do you think that cartoons should take risks that stories don't?
STEVE BELL: Oh, definitely! I think cartoons can do things and should do things and are capable to do things that words can't do, and they shouldn't turn their noses up at the opportunity to do. You cannot make your cartoons acceptable for everybody. Somebody's always going to disagree with it, and that's part of the problem so-- the problem I see with American cartoons is because they're in the -- often in local papers with - the lo--and they're the monopoly paper for the area, they're feeling they have to deal with all shades of opinion and appeal to all shades of opinion, and that's difficult. I've found that's almost impossible to do. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, you conclude that "the role of the cartoonist is to outrage -- to outrage the outrageous."
STEVE BELL:What's the point otherwise? You can't have a good cartoon that everybody agrees with; otherwise it wouldn't be a cartoon and it wouldn't be worth looking at anyway. It's bound to outrage people, and especially in a situation where things are polarized, as they are now -- you're going to be finding you're putting people's noses out of joint all the time, and it's, it's going to happen. And American cartoonists know this damn well cause they're dealing with it all the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since we're in America and not likely to see the Guardian before it comes out, what are you working on now?
STEVE BELL:Well I've just done one - it's again of Tony Blair, and it's talking about this business about him-- [LAUGHS] being exposed as a lying warmonger, basically. So it's more to do with him being hung out to dry, so I, I had him literally being hung out to dry by his ears. I don't know why. Sometimes the-- [LAUGHS] I can't explain it or justify; it's something I can't shake off. An image will come to mind and I just can't shake it off, and so I have to go with it. Might sound haphazard and crude, but-- I think often it works better that way because the image leads it. But there's a rationale behind it that it has to have a bit of a kick to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if you, a legendary cartoonist, suggest that people don't draw from their heads but actually draw from their spleens-- [LAUGHTER] that's the way to go.
STEVE BELL:Well I'm not saying that. [LAUGHS] I'm not saying that entirely. I think you have to do both. It's, shall we say, a delicate synthesis between abuse and reasoned argument. We all [LAUGHS] have our points of view we want to put across. But, you know, there's the thing - you really want to get people with it - well that's the point - you do. It's an attacking medium. There's no point in pretending it isn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steve Bell, thank you very much.
STEVE BELL: Oh, well thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Steve Bell is an editorial cartoonist. His story, A Hard Line on Bush, ran in the Guardian and he joined us on the phone from Brighton. [MUSIC]